Readers of major newspapers have been barraged recently by numerous authors rightly calling on politicians to tone down their political discourse. Of course, all of us–not just politicians–need to practice greater restraint in this area. (As I’ve written before, what’s needed is magnanimity.)
Perhaps some rules of engagement should guide our everyday political discussions. A good place to start, I think, would be to consider Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s “General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette” spelled out in their classic work How to Read a Book. While written in order to guide readers, I think their comments apply to conversations as well, especially in light of today’s lack of civility.
So, here are the “general maxims”:
Refrain from criticizing another person until you actually understand their point. You have to earn the right to disagree with someone. In order to do this you must actually listen or read those with whom you disagree. This requires you to get inside the mindset or worldview of those who espouse a different viewpoint than you do. Before you disagree with someone, make sure you can articulate their position with accuracy.
Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. People do not live by logic; they live by emotion. Additionally, each person has his or her own biases and pre-commitments. Still, try to read or listen sympathetically. Give your conversation partner the judgment of charity. As Adler and Van Doren write, “an attempt at impartiality is a good antidote for the blindness that is almost inevitable in partisanship.” One practical way to do this is by refusing to assign motives to others.
Present reasons for your disagreement. As an aid to better thinking, consider writing out where your conversation partner is in error, followed by your response to him or her. If you can’t clearly express your interlocutor’s position to their satisfaction, then you haven’t understood them well enough; if you can’t express yourself clearly and cogently, perhaps you need to ask more questions and re-read the book or article one more time. And again, stop assigning motives to them and stop psychoanalyzing them. Instead, talk to them and listen to them.
I realize these suggestions are counter cultural and require time and effort on our part, but if we’re serious about increasing civility, then we must put in the effort.